Opinion/Harrington: Perfect was close enough for this nautical artist

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Daniel F. Harrington (danielfharrington@yahoo.com), a monthly contributor, lives in Warwick.

I purchased it 25 years ago. “A Narragansett Passing” by John Mecray. The timeless print featuring a catboat chasing the steamer Providence has hung in four different homes over the years. When my daughters were toddlers, I’d often walk them over to this magic gateway to the past and ask them “Who’s that in the sailboat?” and watch their eyes glow with wonder.

Such is the power of a man once called “the greatest living nautical artist.”

The fascinating life of John Mecray began in Cape May, New Jersey in 1937. Educated at Philadelphia College of Art, Mecray designed posters for the Seventh Army in Germany before becoming a commercial illustrator whose clients included Smith Kline and the Franklin Mint. He also produced three volumes on the legendary Leica camera.

But then fate – and Rhode Island – came calling.

After purchasing a work by British maritime painter James Buttersworth, Mecray had a revelation: “I could do this!” And in 1976, at age 39, he did just that. Forsaking Philadelphia he moved to Newport and began to paint. A year later Ted Turner, in town for the America’s Cup, commissioned Mecray to paint Courageous.

And so it began.

Mecray would produce over 60 major works throughout his career and expand his spectrum to include watercraft of all kinds, including the beloved steamers of the Fall River Line. But it was the wonderous J-class racing yachts of yesteryear that stirred his passion and formed the backbone of his legacy.

He would spend 3 months on each painting and meticulously research his subject beforehand, frequently visiting the Model Room of the New York Yacht Club to sketch critical details of the lonely model ships. Both artist and technician, he would dress his son and his wife, Mary, in period clothing and snap Polaroids of them to ensure the authenticity of even the human beings in his paintings.

His expertise and passion for the craft of sailing was evident in the final product. “When people see an original John Mecray painting for the first time, they are awestruck. You can visualize the yachts sailing off the canvas,” noted renowned sailor Gary Johnson.

Mecray's skill at accurately depicting the ocean and the skies surrounding his subjects has become legendary. “Perfect is close enough” was his motto.

Mecray’s roots in Rhode Island ran deep. He often featured yachts from Bristol’s celebrated designer Nathanael Herreshoff including his “most phenomenal creation” Reliance. And all limited-edition prints of Mecray’s work (now sold out) were titled by Newport’s noted calligrapher Raphael Boguslav.

In 2013 Mecray’s notoriety got an unusual bump when his regal J-class painting Ranger appeared behind Leo DiCaprio’s vulgar Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street” proving that, while not ubiquitous, his work always commands attention.

Ever the Renaissance Man, Mecray founded Newport’s Museum of Yachting and later cofounded the International Yacht Restoration School (IYRS), all while making his home in nearby Jamestown where he also restored antique cars and motorcycles.

John Mecray passed away in November of 2017 after a long, courageous battle with leukemia. He was 80.

Decades from now, when tears fall from little cheeks, my daughters will guide their own grandchildren to the catboat chasing the grand steamer in the eternal summer of John Mecray. “Who’s that in the sailboat?” they’ll ask a child yet born.

“Daddy!” the toddler will proclaim.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Opinion/Harrington: Perfect was close enough for this nautical artist